After more than five years of intense civil strife, there is a flutter of expectation that the war in Aleppo could be winding down. It is not over yet, and military engagements still occur in the devastated city, but a gradual restoration of the situation seems to have started so that the beleaguered city can find some breathing space and begin to lick its wounds. Pictures from the battle zone give a horrifying portrait of destruction of a different level of intensity from the sporadic mob attacks more commonly witnessed during civil strife; extensive use of heavy weapons on the ground and through aerial attacks have wrought unimaginable damage and destroyed large parts of the city, including several monuments of world heritage status that may be impossible to replace. Yet in the midst of the wreckage some brave and hardy souls refused to leave when they had the opportunity and have said they will stay on no matter what, even as supplies of almost everything run out, including food and medicines. As the situation has remained precarious and every laboriously negotiated ceasefire has failed to hold, the UN Secretary General, usually reticent in his choice of language, was moved to describe Aleppo as the new synonym for hell.
In this sombre setting yet another attempt is currently under way to revive the ceasefire and permit the evacuation of civilians. The UN Security Council, whose earlier interventions achieved little, is once again attempting to halt the fighting but the outcome remains uncertain. And even if the immediate conflict is placed in temporary abeyance, there is no certainty that it could lead to a wider cessation of hostilities ~ on the contrary, according to some reports the rebels who are now at bay against President Assad may be prepared to fight on even if they lose their hold in Aleppo. There is thus little early expectation of an end to the humanitarian disaster that has taken such an unimaginably high toll.
The events in Aleppo have had some impact on the conscience of the world though not as much as they well might have. There is widespread criticism of the international failure to act decisively at the proper time, and of the manner in which partisan considerations have divided the peace effort and impeded reconciliation. In these circumstances the humanitarian issue has been overshadowed by the bewildering variety of state and non-state actors, with their own ethnic and ideological claims. External support from various sources for the many contending groups and factions has done much to make the task of reconciliation almost impossibly complicated and has added to the sufferings of the city’s population.
Geopolitical factors have had a baleful effect as different foreign players have been drawn into the situation, but though many have become involved the international community as a whole has not been able to work together to bring its collective judgment to bear. As already mentioned, the UN Security Council is making another effort but opinion within the Council is divided, which makes collective action impossible. Other factors too have worked against concerted international involvement: after its unsuccessful and deeply unpopular interventions in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the USA has appeared reluctant to be actively engaged in Syria despite its strong hostility to the Assad regime which it has wished to undermine. But while the USA and its close allies have tried to keep aloof, Russia has emerged as the key external supporter of the Syrian regime. For some years now a revived Russian presence has been established in the Near East, in effect restoring Russia’s position in this region of historical importance to that country. Russian support has served to strengthen Mr. Assad, and unlike other leaders who have been drawn into the turmoil, Mr. Putin has not been shy of sending in his military forces to back the Syrian regime. The hard knocks administered by Russian military aircraft have halted the ideologically driven rebels of the Islamic State (IS) who had seemed to be carrying all before them, and it is now Mr. Assad’s opponents who appear to be on the run. Enhanced Russian involvement has provided critical support to Mr. Assad’s regime though it seems to have become another element in the current general deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, a development that has been increasingly evident as Russian interests in the Near East and elsewhere in its neighbourhood have been more strongly projected. Apart from Moscow, important support for Syria has been provided by Iran, with Iran-backed militias playing a big part in combating IS and shoring up the Assad regime. Sunni-Shia differences have played their part in bringing about this state of affairs, as have other deep-seated historical factors affecting the region. Among the significant military forces in the field is that of Hizbollah, which is the Lebanese-based militia that has become prominent in regional affairs. Iran’s involvement and the role it has assumed point to that country’s important position in the region that must be regarded as a significant element in the resolution of regional differences and restoration of better conditions. Some small recent progress in US-Iran relations could possibly help drive events in this direction.
The shifting geopolitical constellation needs to be taken into account while considering where matters could be headed after events in Aleppo have run their course. Russian engagement will no doubt continue to be a factor, perhaps a decisive one, and the strong leadership provided by Mr. Putin could continue to have a positive impact, as has already been the case. The long eclipse of Russia in the Near and Middle East has already changed and been succeeded by a more active policy, which seems to include greater readiness to stand by its established friends in the area, Syria currently the most prominent among them. Western chancelleries have been somewhat disturbed by the picture of a reviving Russia in an area from where it had been relatively quiescent. Russia’s position will now require reassessment in the light of Mr. Putin’s more active policy. Yet another imponderable factor for the future is the kind of leadership that may be provided by incoming Mr. Trump as US President. Unlike the bulk of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, Mr. Trump seems to have regard for Mr. Putin as a strong leader who will give no ground to disruptive elements. Whether this will lead to some coordination of effort in and around Aleppo remains to be seen.
While the broader geopolitical issues must claim international attention, currently the most pressing matter in Aleppo is ending the violence and restoring basic security. Some way of reversing the negative trend towards destruction is the most urgent international requirement of the moment and must have priority at the UN and elsewhere.
(The writer is India's former foreign secretary)